It’s Complicated


I’ve been criticized for saying that the issue behind the attempt of some students at Oxford to stop having John Finnis teach required courses* is “morally and practically complicated.” How strong a criticism is this?

The criticism is in the form of an anonymous note posted at Leiter Reports. I usually don’t respond to Professor Leiter’s remarks about me but I thought it would be useful to say a little in response to this.

One of the central tasks of philosophy, in general, is to ask questions that reveal that things are more complicated than they might appear. So I don’t take someone’s pointing out that I’m doing this to be much of a criticism at all.

When it comes to approaching matters of ethics and policy, I think our default mindset should be that they’re complicated. Even after we sort through the myriad empirical and normative considerations that could be relevant to any such matter—itself not always an easy task—we are left with assorted intersecting values and variables to take into account, and we often lack the relevant expertise on some of those items to be entitled to declare the matter simple.

What makes the Finnis matter, in particular, complicated? To help answer this, we can imagine different versions of it that would be relatively uncomplicated.

For example, if there was evidence that Finnis was discriminating against openly gay students in his seminars (to my knowledge there is no such evidence), that would make calls for his dismissal less complicated. People might disagree over whether dismissal was the appropriate solution, but few would disagree that the discriminatory treatment should be stopped.

If, instead of the complaint being about Finnis’ view that homosexual behavior is evil, it was about his view of the appropriate income tax rate, that would also make calls for his dismissal less complicated. That a professor’s view of the appropriate income tax rate differs from those of his students is no basis at all for concerns about them having to take courses with him.

The actual case is different from both of the above alternatives in ways that seem morally important. How do we get clearer on the nature of that difference?

One way is by thinking of other cases that fall between the two less complicated alternatives and see how they compare to the actual one, and so as part of that I offered up in the previous post my examples of Jewish students who have to take a course from someone who has publicly argued that it would be better if there were no Jews, and of African-American students who have to take a course from a professor who has publicly argued that a return to legalized slavery would be good for the U.S. You are of course welcome to develop other examples you think would be helpful in understanding the matter and the various positions one could take on it.

Let’s assume that the professors in these examples engage in no discriminatory behavior towards their students. Could the students nonetheless have some complaints about being required to take courses with them? Are any of these complaints worth taking seriously? If so, do they speak conclusively in favor of any actions? If so, are any of those actions ones that the university should take? If so, do any of those actions involve changing the employment status or responsibilities of the professor? And do our answers to these questions tell us anything helpful about the actual case?

These are not outrageous questions, by which I mean it isn’t obvious that the answers to most or all of them are “no.” I won’t attempt to answer these questions, but I will take their non-outrageousness to be evidence in favor of my view that the matter is indeed morally and practically complicated.

The vigorous disagreement voiced and difficult questions asked by several of the contributors to the 100+ comment thread on the original post also speak in favor of the matter being more complicated than it might at first seem (see comments from Joel Pust, Spencer Case, and Dale Miller, for example, among others).

For what it’s worth, my own view, which I will not present in any detail here, is that the students probably do have complaints that are worth taking seriously, but that the best way to address them does not involve changing Finnis’ employment status or responsibilities.

In general, the question “Should we X?” can be complicated by factors that we ultimately determine don’t themselves make a difference to whether to X. But we shouldn’t ignore those factors, nor should we think these factors are irrelevant to other questions in the vicinity of the original one that we may come to think are worth asking.

When potentially relevant factors are brought to my attention from people with lives relevantly different from mine, I think the epistemically responsible thing to do is take them seriously. If doing so leads me to conclude that things are more complicated than they might have at first appeared, so be it.

Springbok Editions Puzzle of “Convergence” by Jackson Pollock (detail, w/box)

*Note that it is not clear that Finnis is, in fact, teaching any required courses. If he isn’t, that’s a sufficient reason for the students to withdraw their petition, as people may have signed it only because they believed he was teaching required courses.

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